I realized that my plans from now on must depend upon the conditions which confronted me. My hope was that I might reach the palace of Ay-mad, undetected, and hide myself in the throne room until Janai was brought before him. I should then attempt to destroy Ay-mad, and if I succeeded, which I had no doubt but that I should, to fight my way with Janai toward liberty. That I should fail seemed quite probable; but at least I should have destroyed her worst enemy, and might even find sufficient following among the hormads, which were always discontented with their rulers, to promise some success in taking over the city and Island of Morbus. This was my dream; but it was doomed never to be realized.
I had been reckoning without consideration of Vat Room No. 4.
As I approached the door that opened into the corridor, I thought that I heard sounds beyond the heavy panels; so that it was with the utmost caution that I opened the doors gradually. As I did so, the sound came more plainly to my ears.
It was indescribable—a strange surging sound, unlike any other sound in the world, and blending with it were strange human voices mouthing unintelligibly.
Even before I looked out, I knew then what it was; and as I stepped into the corridor I saw at my right and not far from the door a billowing mass of slimy, human tissue creeping gradually toward me. Protruding from it were unrelated fragments of human anatomy—a hand, an entire leg, afoot, a lung, a heart, and here and there a horribly mouthing head. The heads screamed at me, and a hand tried to reach forth and clutch me; but I was well without their reach. Had I arrived an hour later, and opened that door, the whole horrid mass would have surged in upon me and the body of Vor Daj would have been lost forever.
The corridor to the left, leading to the ramp that led to the upper floors, was quite deserted. I realized that the mass in Vat Room No. 4 must have found entrance at the far end of the pits through some unguarded opening below the street level. Eventually it would fill every crevice and make its way up the ramp to the upper stories of the Laboratory Building.
What, I wondered, would be the end? Theoretically, it would never cease to grow and spread unless entirely destroyed. It would spread out of the City of Morbus and across the Great Toonolian Marshes. It would engulf cities; or failing to mount their walls, it would surround and isolate them, condemning their inhabitants to slow starvation. It would roll across the dead sea bottoms to the farmlands of Mars’ great canals. Eventually it would cover the entire surface of the planet, destroying all other life. Conceivably, it might grow and grow through all eternity devouring and living upon itself. It was a hideous thing to contemplate, but it was not without probability. Ras Thavas himself had told me as much.
I hastened along the corridor toward the ramp, expecting that I would probably find no other abroad at this time of night, as the discipline and guarding of the Laboratory Building was extremely lax when left to the direction of the hormads, as it had been after I had been demoted; but to my chagrin and consternation I found the upper floors alive with warriors and officers. A veritable panic reigned, and to such an extent that no one paid any attention to me. The officers were trying to maintain some form of order and discipline; but they were failing signally in the face of the terror that was apparent everywhere. From snatches of conversation which I overheard, I learned that the mass from Vat Room No. 4 had entered the palace and that Ay- mad and his court were fleeing to another part of the island outside the city walls. I learned, too, that the mass was spreading through the avenues of the city, and the fear of the hormad warriors was that they would all be cut off from escape. Ay-mad had issued orders that they should remain and attempt to destroy the mass and prevent its further spread through the city. Some of the officers were halfheartedly attempting to enforce the order, but for the most part they were as anxious to flee as the common warriors themselves.
Suddenly one warrior raised his voice above the tumult and shouted to his fellows. “Why should we remain here to die, while Ay-mad escapes with his favorites? There is still one avenue open; come, follow me!”
That was enough. Like a huge wave, the hideous monsters swept the officers to one side, killing some and trampling others, as they bolted for the exit which led to the only avenue of escape left open to them. Nothing could withstand them, and I was carried along in the mad rush for safety.
It was just as well, for if Ay-mad was leaving the City, Janai would not be brought into it.
Once in the avenue, the congestion was relieved, and we moved along in a steady stream toward the outer gate; but the flight did not stop here, as the terrified hormads spread over the Island in an attempt to get as far away from the City as possible; so I found myself standing almost alone in the open space before the City where the malagors landed and from which they took off in their flight. To this spot would the captors of Janai bring her; so here I would remain hoping that some fortunate circumstance might suggest a plan whereby I might rescue her from this city of horrors.
It seemed that I had never before had to wait so long for dawn, and I found myself almost alone on the stretch of open plain that lay between the City gates and the shore of the lake. A few officers and warriors remained at the gate, and scouts were continually entering the City and reporting back the progress of the mass. I thought that they had not noticed me, but presently one of the officers approached me.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded.
“I was sent here by Ay-mad,” I replied.
“Your face is very familiar,” said the officer. “I am sure that I have seen you before. Something about you arouses my suspicions.”
I shrugged. “It does not make much difference,” I said, “what you think. I am Ay-mad’s messenger, and I carry orders for the officer in command of the party that went in search of the fugitives.”
“Oh,” he said, “that is possible; still I feel that I know you.”
“I doubt it,” I replied. “Ever since I was created, I have lived in a small village at the end of the island.”
“Perhaps so,” he said. “It doesn’t make any difference, anyway. What message do you bring to the commander of the search party?”
“I have orders for the commander of the gate, also.”
“I am he,” said the officer.
“Good,” I replied. “My orders are to take the woman, if she has been recaptured, upon a malagor and fly her directly to Ay-mad, and the captain of the gate is made responsible to see that this is done. I feel sorry for you, if, there is any hitch.”
“There will be no hitch,” he said; “but I do not see why there should be.”
“There may be, though,” I assured him, “for some informer has told Ay-mad that the commander of the search party wishes Janai for himself. In all the confusion and insubordination and mutiny that has followed the abandonment of the city, Ay-mad is none too sure of himself or his power; so he is fearful that this officer may take advantage of conditions to defy him and keep the girl for himself when he learns what has happened here during his absence.”
“Well,” said the captain of the gate, “I’ll see to that.”
“It might be well,” I suggested, “not to let the officer in command of the party know what you have in mind. I will hide inside the city gates so that he will not see me; and you can bring the girl to me and, later, a malagor, while you engage the officer in conversation and distract his attention. Then, when I have flown away, you may tell him.”
“That is a good idea,” he said. “You are not such a fool as you look.”
“I am sure,” I said, “that you will find you have made no mistake in your estimate of me.”
“Look!” he said, “I believe they are coming now.” And sure enough, far away, and high in the sky, a little cluster of dots were visible which grew rapidly larger and larger, resolving themselves finally into eleven malagors with their burdens of warriors and captives.
As the party came closer and prepared to land, I stepped inside the gate where I could not be observed or recognized by any of them. The captain of the gate advanced and greeted the commander of the returning search party. They spoke briefly for a few moments, and then I saw Janai coming toward the gate; and presently a warrior followed her, leading a large malagor. I scrutinized the fellow carefully as he approached; but I did not recognize him, and so I was sure that he would not know me, and then Janai entered and stood face to face with me.
“Tor-dur-bar!” she exclaimed.
“Quiet,” I whispered. “You are in grave danger from which I think I can save you if you will trust me, as evidently you have not in the past.”
“I have not known whom to trust,” she said, “but I have trusted you more than any other.”
The warrior had now reached the gate with the malagor. I tossed Janai to its back and leaped astride the great bird behind her; then we were off. I directed the flight of the bird toward the east end of the island, to make them think I was taking Janai to Ay-mad; but when we had crossed some low hills and they were hidden from my view, I turned back around the south side of the island and headed toward Phundahl.
As we started to fly from the island the great bird became almost unmanageable, trying to return again to its fellows. I had to fight it constantly to keep it headed in the direction I wished to travel. These exertions coming upon top of its long flight tired it rapidly so that eventually it gave up and flapped slowly and dismally along the route I had chosen. Then, for the first time, Janai and I were able to converse.
“How did you happen to be at the gate when I arrived?” she asked. “How is it that you are the messenger whom Ay-mad chose to bring me to him?”
“Ay-mad knows nothing about it,” I replied. “It is an a little fiction of my own which I invented to deceive the captain of the gate and the commander of the party that recaptured you.”
“But how did you know that I had been recaptured and that I would be returned to Morbus today? It is all very confusing and baffling; I cannot understand it.”
“Did you not hear that a malagor was stolen from your camp last night?” I asked.
“Tor-dur-bar!” she exclaimed. “It was you? What were you doing there?”
“I had set out in search of you and was beside the island when your party landed.”
I’ll see,” she said. “How very clever and how very brave.”
“If you had believed in me and trusted me,” I said, “we might have escaped; but I do not believe that I would have been such a fool as to be recaptured, as was Sytor.”
“I believed in you and trusted you more than any other,” she said.
“Then why did you run away with Sytor?” I demanded.
“I did not run away with Sytor. He tried to persuade me, telling me many stories about you which I did not wish to believe. Finally I told him definitely that I would not go with him, but he and Pandar came in the night and took me by force.”
“I am glad that you did not go away with him willingly,” I said. I can tell you that it made me feel very good to think that she had not done so; and now I loved her more than ever, but little good it would do me as long as I sported this hideous carcass and monstrously inhuman face.
“And what of Vor Daj?” she asked presently.
“We shall have to leave his body where it is until Ras Thavas returns; there is no alternative.”
“But if Ras Thavas never returns?” she asked, her voice trembling.
“Then Vor Daj will lie where he is through all eternity,” I replied.
“How horrible,” she breathed. “He was so handsome, so wonderful.”
“You thought well of him?” I asked. And I was immediately ashamed of myself for taking this unfair advantage of her.
“I thought well of him,” she said, in a matter-of-fact tone, a reply which was neither very exciting nor very encouraging. She might have spoken in the same way of a thoat or a calot.
Sometime after noon, it became apparent that the malagor had about reached the limit of its endurance. It began to drop closer and closer toward the marshes, and presently it came to the ground upon one of the largest islands that I had seen. It was a very attractive island, with hill and dale and forest land, and a little stream winding down to the lake, a most unusual sight upon Barsoom. The moment that the malagor alighted, it rolled over upon its side throwing us to the ground, and I thought that it was about to die as it lay there struggling and gasping.
“Poor thing!” said Janai. “It has been carrying double for three days now, and with insufficient food, practically none at all.”
“Well, it has at least brought us away from Morbus,” I said, “and if it recovers it is going to take us on to Helium.”
“Why to Helium?” she asked.
“Because it is the only country where I am sure you will find safe asylum.”
“And why should I find safety there?” she demanded.
“Because you are a friend of Vor Daj; and John Carter, Warlord of Barsoom, will see that any friend of Vor Daj is well received and well treated.”
“And you?” she asked. I must have shuddered visibly at the thought of entering Helium in this horrible guise, for she said quickly, “I am sure that you will be received well, too, for you certainly deserve it far more than I.” She thought for a moment in silence, and then she asked, “Do you know what became of the brain of Vor Daj? Sytor told me that it was destroyed.”
I wanted to tell her the truth; but I could not bring myself to it, and so I said, “It was not destroyed. Ras Thavas knows where it is; and if I ever find him, it will be restored to Vor Daj.”
“It does not seem possible that we two shall ever find Ras Thavas,” she said, sadly.
It did not seem likely to me either, but I would not give up hope. John Carter must live! Ras Thavas must live! And some day I should find them.
But what of my body lying there beneath the Laboratory Building of Morbus? What if the mass from Vat Room No. 4 found its way into 3-17? The very thought made me feel faint; and yet it was not impossible. If the building and the corridor filled with the mass, the great pressure that it would exert might conceivably break down even the massive door of 3-17. Then those horrid heads would devour me; or, if the mass spread from the Island across the marshes, it would be impossible ever to retrieve my body even though it remained forever untouched.
It was not a very cheerful outlook, and I found it extremely depressing; but my thoughts were suddenly recalled to other channels by an exclamation from Janai.
“Look!” she cried.
I turned in the direction she was pointing, to see a number of strange creatures coming toward us in prodigious leaps and bounds. That they were some species of human being was apparent, but there were variations which rendered them unlike any other animal on Mars. They had long, powerful legs, the knees of which were always flexed except immediately after the take-off of one of their prodigious leaps, and they had long, powerful tails; otherwise, they seemed quite human in conformation. As they came closer, I noted that they were entirely naked except for a simple harness which supported a short sword on one side and a dagger on the other. Besides these weapons, each of them carried a spear in his right hand. They quickly surrounded us, remaining at a little distance from us, squatting down with their knees bent as they supported themselves on their broad, flat feet and their tails.
“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” demanded one of them, surprising me by the fact that he possessed speech.
“We were flying over your island,” I replied, “when our malagor became tired and was forced to come to ground to rest. As soon as we are able, we shall continue on our way.”
The fellow shook his head. “You will never leave Gooli,” he said. He was examining me closely. “What are you?” he asked.
“I am a man,” I said, stretching the point a little.
He shook his head. “And what is that?” He pointed at Janai.
“A woman,” I replied.
Again he shook his head.
“She is only half a woman,” he said. “She has no way of rearing her young or keeping them warm. If she had any, they would die as soon as they were hatched.”
Well, that was a subject I saw no reason for going into, and so I kept silent.
Janai seemed slightly amused, for if she were nothing else she was extremely feminine.
“What do you intend to do with us?” I demanded.
“We shall take you to the Jed, and he will decide. Perhaps he will let you live and work; perhaps he will destroy you. You are very ugly, but you look strong; you should be a good worker. The woman appears useless, if she can be called a woman.”
I was at a loss as to what to do. We were surrounded by fully fifty warriors, well though crudely armed. With my terrific strength, I might have destroyed many of them; but eventually I was sure that they would overpower and kill me.
It would be better to go with them to their Jed and await a better opportunity for escape. “Very well,” I said, “we will go with you.”
“Of course you will,” he said. “What else could you do?”
“I could fight,” I said.
“Ho ho, you would like to fight, would you?” he demanded. “Well, I think that if that is the case, the Jed will accommodate you. Come with us.”
They led us back along the stream and up over a little rise of ground beyond which we saw a forest, at the edge of which lay a village of thatched huts.
“That,” said the leader, pointing, “is Gooli, the largest city in the world. There, in his great palace, dwells Anatok, Jed of Gooli and all of the Island of Ompt.”
As we approached the village, a couple of hundred people came to meet us. There were men, women and children; and when I examined the women I realized why the leader of the party that had captured us thought that Janai was not wholly feminine. These Goolians of the Island of Ompt are marsupials, oviparous marsupials. The females lay eggs which they carry in a pouch on, the lower part of their abdomen. In this pouch the eggs hatch, and in it the young live and take shelter until they are able to fend for themselves. It was quite amusing to see the little heads protruding from their mothers’ pouches as they surveyed us with wondering eyes. Up to this time I had believed that there was only one marsupial upon Barsoom, and that a reptile; so it seemed quite remarkable to see these seemingly quite human people bearing their young in abdominal pouches.
The creatures that came out from the village to meet us were quite rough with us, pulling and hauling us this way and that as they sought to examine us more closely. I towered above them all and they were a little in awe of me; but they were manhandling Janai quite badly when I interfered, pushing several of them away so forcibly that they were thrown to the ground, whereupon two or three of them drew their swords and came for me; but the party that had captured us acted now as a bodyguard and defended us from attack. After this they kept the rabble at a distance, and presently we were ushered into the village and led to a grass hut much larger than the others. This, I assumed, was the magnificent palace of Anatok. Such it proved to be, and presently the Jed himself emerged from the interior with several men and women and a horde of children. The women were his wives and their attendants; the men were his counselors.
Anatok seemed much interested in us and asked many questions about our capture, and then he asked us from whence we came.
“We came from Morbus,” I said, “and we are on our way to Helium.”
“Morbus—Helium,” he repeated. “I never heard of them. Little villages, no doubt, inhabited by savages. How fortunate we are to live in such a splendid city as Gooli. Don’t you think so?” he asked.
“I think you would be very much happier in Gooli than in Morbus, and far more at ease here than in Helium,” I replied, truthfully.
“Our countries,” I continued, “have never harmed you. We are not at war; therefore you should let us go on our way in peace.”
At that he laughed. “What simple people come from other villages!” he exclaimed.
“You are my slaves. When you are no longer of service to me you shall be destroyed. Do you think that we want any strangers to go away from Ompt to lead enemies here to destroy our magnificent city and steal our vast riches?”
“Our people would never bother you,” I said. “Our country is too far from here. If one of your people should come to our country, he would be treated with kindness. We fight only with our enemies.”
“That reminds me,” said the leader of the party that had captured us, “this fellow is indeed our enemy by his own words, for he said that he wished to fight us.”
“What!” exclaimed Anatok. “Well, if that is so, he shall have his wish. There is nothing that we like better than a good fight. With what weapons would you like to fight?”
“I will fight with anything that my antagonist chooses,” I replied.